Joy at Work

Scott Sonenshein | 14 mins



Why Tidy?

What’s the first thing that greets you when you get to the office on Monday morning?

For many, it’s a desk covered in things, things, and more things! Piles of documents, random paper clips, unopened letters delivered who-knows-when, unread books, and a laptop plastered with sticky-note reminders. And beneath their desk are often bags of promotional giveaways from customers. I’m sure most people heave a deep sigh at the sight and wonder how they’ll ever get anything done when their desk is such a mess.

Aki, an office worker at a real-estate agency, was one of those who suffered from a messy desk. Even though it wasn’t that big (the top was only about as wide as her arm span, and it had only three drawers), she could never find anything in it. Before a meeting, she was always frantically searching for her glasses, her pen, or a folder, and she often had to reprint her documents and materials when she failed to unearth them. Many times she became fed up and resolved to organize her desk, but come evening she would be too tired and put it off until “tomorrow,” piling all the documents she had used that day on one side before heading home. Of course, the next day she would end up searching through that pile for the materials she needed before she could even begin tackling her work. By the time she finally got started, she was exhausted. “Sitting at that messy desk was totally depressing,” she told me. Unfortunately, she had good reason to feel this way.

Various studies show that messy conditions cost us far more than we could ever imagine, and in multiple ways. In a survey of one thousand working American adults, 90 percent felt that clutter had a negative impact on their lives. The top reasons they gave were lowered productivity, a negative mindset, reduced motivation, and diminished happiness.

Clutter also adversely affects health. According to a study by scientists at UCLA, being surrounded by too many things increases cortisol levels, a primary stress hormone. Chronically high levels of cortisol can make us more susceptible to depression, insomnia, and other mental disorders, as well as such stress-related physical disorders as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.

In addition, recent psychology research shows that a messy environment taxes the brain. When surrounded by clutter, our brains are so busy registering all the things around us that we can’t focus on what we should be doing in the moment, such as tackling the work on our desk or communicating with others. We feel distracted, stressed, and anxious, and our decision-making ability is impaired. Clutter, it seems, is a magnet for misery. In fact, the data show that people like me, who get excited by the sight of a messy room and can’t wait to tidy up, are the exception.

But it’s not just individuals who are affected. Clutter is bad for business, too. Have you ever spent hours looking for something at the office? Or even lost it completely? Almost half of office workers report mislaying one important work-related item a year. It might be a file folder, a calculator, a memory drive, a briefcase, a laptop, or a cell phone. Not only does replacing lost items cost money, but losing them in the first place causes emotional stress and creates unnecessary waste that damages the environment. But the greatest loss is the time spent looking for them. Data show that the search for lost things adds up to an average of one workweek per year per employee. In a span of four years, that comes to a whole month. In the United States alone, this loss in productivity when converted to cash amounts to an estimated US$89 billion annually. This is more than double the combined profit of the world’s five largest corporations.

These figures are staggering, but this is the reality. The effects of clutter can be devastating. Still, there’s no need to worry. All these problems can be solved by tidying up.

How Tidying My Workspace Changed My Life

After graduating from university, I got a job at a staffing agency in the corporate sales department. My euphoria at joining the workforce, however, was short-lived. Although it’s only natural for new hires to experience difficulties when they first start, my sales performance never seemed to improve. Of the fifteen people newly employed that year, I was always in the bottom three.

I arrived at the office early, spent hours on the phone trying to make appointments with prospective clients, kept those appointments I did manage to make, and made lists of more potential customers in between. In the evening I grabbed a quick bowl of noodles at a shop in our building, then returned to my desk to prepare materials. I seemed to be working all the time, yet I never got results.

One day, after another discouraging round of sales calls, I put down the receiver with a deep sigh and bowed my head. Staring dejectedly at the top of my desk, I realized with a start that it was a complete mess. Scattered around my keyboard were a pile of outdated sales lists, a half-written contract, a paper cup with some tea I hadn’t finished, a shriveled-up tea bag, a week-old bottle of water, scraps of paper on which I had scrawled random sales tips from my coworkers, an unread business book someone had recommended, a pen missing its cap, a stapler with which I planned to staple together some papers but had forgotten . . .

I could not believe my eyes. How could this have happened? I had been working as a tidying consultant since I was in university, yet despite my confidence in my tidying skills, I had been so swamped with my new job that I no longer had time to do any consulting and had even become lax in my tidying habits at home. Somehow I had lost touch with my inner tidying geek. No wonder I wasn’t having any success at work.

Shocked, I came into the office at seven the next morning to tidy my desk. Marshaling all the knowledge and skills I had honed over the years, I finished within an hour. Soon my workspace was clean and clutter-free. All that was left on my desk was the phone and my computer.

Although I’d like to say that my sales performance shot up immediately, things didn’t change quite that fast. I did, however, feel a lot happier being at my desk. I could find the documents I needed right away. There was no mad search for things just before I dashed off to a meeting, and when I came back, I could launch right into the next task. Gradually, I began to experience more joy in my work.

Tidying had been my passion for years, and I already had a strong hunch that tidying up one’s home could change one’s life. But now it hit me that tidying the workplace was important, too. As I sat at my desk, which felt brand-new, I sensed that keeping it tidy would make my job more fun and help me love my work.

Why Tidying Up Improves Work Performance

“My desk is such a mess, I’m embarrassed,” my colleague Lisa confided one day. She worked on the same floor as I did. When she saw me putting my desk back in order, she became intrigued and began asking my advice. She had never been good at tidying even as a child, and her parents’ home was full of things. Her apartment, she told me, was a shambles, too. “Not only have I never tidied in my life, it never even occurred to me that I should,” she said. But working at an office had made her aware that her desk was far messier than anyone else’s.

Her story is not so unusual. A major difference between a home and a workspace is that at work, people can see us. At home, almost no one sees our clothes or books, even if they are strewn all over the floor. But an office is a shared space, which makes the difference between a tidy desk and a messy one obvious to all. Surprisingly, this fact has a much greater impact on our working life than most people realize.

Several studies on employee evaluations in the workplace have shown that the tidier a person’s space, the more likely others are to see them as ambitious, intelligent, warm, and calm, while yet another study showed that such people are seen as confident, friendly, industrious, and kind. The list of adjectives makes these people sound like real winners. Moreover, studies show that tidy people tend to gain others’ trust more easily and are more likely to be promoted. Beyond the importance of a good reputation for career advancement, research repeatedly finds that we work to the level of expectations that others set for us. Higher expectations boost our confidence and usually result in better performance. This theory, known as the Pygmalion effect, is based on studies showing that students’ grades improve when they sense that their teachers expect them to excel. The Pygmalion effect has also been shown to be important in work settings, where employees’ performance rises or declines to the level of expectations set for them.

The findings of these studies can be summarized in three simple points. A tidy desk results in a higher evaluation of our character and capacity. This raises our self-esteem and increases our motivation. As a result, we work harder and our performance improves. Looked at in this way, tidying up sounds like a pretty good deal, doesn’t it?

After she applied my lessons to her workspace, Lisa’s sales performance improved, her boss praised her highly, and her confidence in her job steadily increased. As for me, let’s just say that I got high marks within the company for my ability to tidy up, and that made me happy.

Are Messy People Really More Creative?

A bare, tidy desk is sterile and boring. “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” These words have been attributed to the creative genius and physicist Albert Einstein. Regardless of whether he actually said them or not, his desk appears to have been buried under piles of books and papers. Similarly, Pablo Picasso painted while surrounded by a jumble of paintings, and Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, reportedly kept his office cluttered on purpose. Legends of geniuses with messy offices are too numerous to mention. As if to corroborate these, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota concluded that a messy job setting is more likely to generate creative ideas.

Perhaps because such stories abound, people frequently ask me for confirmation. “But a cluttered desk is good, isn’t it?” hey’ll say. “It stimulates creativity, right?” If you’re wondering if your cluttered desk might make you more productive, too, and whether it’s worth reading the rest of this book, here’s a little exercise for you to try. Start by mentally picturing your desk at the office, your studio, or your workplace. Or, if you are sitting there at this very moment, just take a good look around you. Next, answer these questions.

Are you honestly feeling positive about working here right now?

Does working at this desk every day really spark joy for you?

Are you sure that you’re giving full scope to your creativity?

Do you really want to come back to this tomorrow?

These questions aren’t intended to make you feel bad. They’re meant to help you get in touch with how you feel about your work environment. If you answered yes without hesitation to all of them, your joy level at work is impressively high. But if your response was ambivalent, if you felt your heart sink, even a little, then tidying up is definitely worth a try.

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter which is better—a clutter-free desk or one that is total chaos. The most important thing is that you yourself are aware of the kind of environment that brings you joy at work; that you know your own joy criteria. And tidying up is one of the best ways to find out. Many clients who have used this method to tidy up their homes end up with a bare and simple interior when they’re done, only to realize a little later that they want more decoration. That’s when they begin adding accents they love. Often, it is only after tidying up that people realize what kind of environment sparks joy for them.

Are you the type who can tap into your creativity more easily once you’ve tidied up, or the type who is more creative in the midst of clutter? No matter which you are, the tidying process will help you discover the kind of joyful workspace that makes your creativity bloom.

The Vicious Cycle of Accumulating Clutter

Research shows that clutter decreases the joy we feel at work for two main reasons. First, it overwhelms the brain. The more stuff we have around us, the more overloaded the brain becomes. This makes it harder for us to recognize, experience, and savor those things that are most important to us—the things that bring us joy.

Second, when we are inundated with things, information, and tasks, we lose our sense of control and the ability to choose. No longer capable of taking the initiative or choosing our actions, we forget that work is a means for realizing our dreams and aspirations and lose our love for our job. To make matters worse, when people feel they are no longer in control, they begin to accumulate more unwanted stuff while also struggling with a sense of guilt and pressure to do something about it. The result? They put off dealing with their stuff indefinitely, generating a vicious cycle of ever-increasing clutter.             S.S.

The High Cost of Nonphysical Clutter

It is not just our desks that need tidying. We’re overloaded with nonphysical clutter, too. In particular, modern technology has generated digital clutter in the form of excess emails, files, and online accounts. Add to this the many meetings and other tasks we need to deal with, and it seems impossible to get things under control. To achieve a work style that truly sparks joy, we need to tidy up every aspect of our work, not just our physical space.

According to one study, a typical office worker spends about half his or her day dealing with emails and averages 199 unopened emails in the inbox on any given day. The Center for Creative Leadership reported that 96 percent of employees feel they’re wasting time dealing with unnecessary emails. In addition, almost one-third of programs installed on most computers are never used. It’s clear from these examples alone that we’re inundated with digital clutter while on the job.

And what about the information we need to use various online service accounts? An average internet user has 130 online accounts per email address. Even considering that some can be combined and managed under one account, such as Google or Facebook, the number of user IDs and passwords needed is still impressive. And just think about what happens when you forget your password. You type in a combination of possible IDs and passwords without success, eventually giving up and changing it.

Unfortunately, statistics show that we’re very likely to repeat this experience. According to a survey of workers in America and the UK, the loss in productivity from forgetting or mislaying passwords comes to at least US$420 per employee annually. In a company that employs about twenty-five people, that amounts to more than US$10,000 a year. Perhaps we should set up a “lost password fund” that automatically transfers a donation whenever someone forgets their password and use the proceeds to benefit society.

Meetings also take up a large percentage of our working time. The average office worker wastes two hours and thirty-nine minutes a week in ineffective meetings. In a survey of senior managers conducted by researchers, the majority of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with company meetings, claiming that they were unproductive, inefficient, interfered with more important things, and failed to bring the team closer together. Meetings are held for the benefit of the company, yet ironically senior managers, the very people responsible for organizing them, see them as detrimental. The cost of unproductive meetings comes to more than US$399 billion annually. When I think about this, along with the losses incurred by forgotten passwords and the US$8.9 billion wasted in time spent searching for mislaid items, I can’t help wondering how much revenue the government could generate by taxing for this kind of clutter. Crazy, I know, but still . . .

Scott will share with you the details of how to tidy nonphysical clutter from chapter 4 on. For now, just note that there will be a few hurdles you’ll need to tackle to make your work spark joy. That means you’ve got great potential for improvement. Imagine having organized not only your desk but also all your emails, files, and other digital data, and always being on top of your schedule for meetings and various tasks. Think how much joy this could bring to your work.

Tidying Up Helps You Find a Sense of Purpose

When I was working for a company, one of my colleagues who had started working there two years before I did asked for advice in decluttering her workspace. During our tidying sessions, she told me, “I’m here to work and make a living, not to enjoy myself. Life is more fun if you finish your work quickly and concentrate on enjoying your free time.”

Everyone has their own working style and their own way of thinking. I know that some people approach their work in the same way as my coworker, but let me be very blunt. That’s a terrible waste. Of course, because we are paid for the work we do, all jobs come with responsibilities. If we work for an organization, there are also many things over which we have no control. As long as we’re members of society, it’s unrealistic to expect that our personal happiness should always be given top priority. Unlike tidying the private space within our home, tidying up at work doesn’t guarantee that everything at our office or in our job will always spark joy.

Still, it seems such a shame to give up and work only out of obligation, making no effort to spark joy in our environment. Next to the home, work is where we spend most of our time, and at some points in our lives, we may even spend more time on the job than at home. Work is a precious part of life. While making good use of our skills, wouldn’t it make sense to enjoy our time at work even a little? And if we’re going to enjoy it, why not also work in a way that makes others around us happy?

Some of you may be thinking, That’s all very well for you to say, but I hate my job. I can’t imagine it ever sparking joy. Even so, I still recommend that you try tidying up. Tidying can help you get in touch with what you really want, show you what you need to change, and help you find more joy in your environment. That may sound too good to be true, but it’s not.

I have witnessed how tidying can transform many aspects of my clients’ work life. One client, for example, remembered her childhood dream while tidying up her books and quit her job to start her own company. While tidying documents, a business owner identified a problem in her business and made a bold shift. And another client, upon completing the tidying process, recognized the kind of lifestyle she wanted and switched jobs so that she worked half as many hours. These changes didn’t occur because these people were unusual in some way. They were simply the cumulative result of examining each thing in front of them and choosing whether to keep it in their life or to let it go.

“This was supposed to be my dream job, but now I’m scrambling just to keep up with a flood of tasks. I’m always longing to go home early.”

“I can’t figure out what I want to do. I’ve tried a lot of different things, but I just don’t know what I really want.”

“I poured everything into my work to get this far, but now I’m wondering if this is really the right career for me.”

If you are having doubts like this about your job or career, now is the perfect time to start tidying up. Tidying is much more than sorting things and putting them away. It’s a major project that will change your life forever. The goal of the method shared in this book is not just to have a nice neat desk but to begin a dialogue with yourself through tidying—to discover what you value by exploring why you are working in the first place and what kind of working style you want. This process will help you see how each task you do is linked to a joyful future. In the end, the real goal is to discover what brings you joy in your work so that you can give it your best. We invite you to experience for yourself how tidying up can spark joy in your career.